Thursday, April 23, 2009

Retroclones and the Old School Renaissance

Why the “Old School Renaissance”? And why now? The resurgence in interest in old-school gaming is more than the vague, ephemeral suspicion it was a year or two ago: “is it me or am I seeing more message board postings on the old editions?”, “where did all these old-school blogs come from?”, “I started playing D&D with 2E back in ’91 or so and recently started looking into older editions…”. I’m sure you’ve seen these quotes in various forms across the internet for months now, like I have, with increasing frequency. Its kind of satisfying to be able to say, without second-guessing whether I’m being precipitous, that yes, there really is an Old School Renaissance, and yes, a lot more people are playing and talking about older edition D&D than there were even a year ago.

But why now? Those old editions have been right there all along, easily accessible from EBay, game stores with used book sections, and (until recently) in .pdf form for 4 or 5 bucks a book online. Why, seemingly all of a sudden, are so many picking up these old games and rediscovering how much fun they were, and talking about it so much? Sure, plenty of folks have stuck with them all along, and been espousing their advantages to any who cared to drop by Dragonsfoot, or K&K, or even ENWorld, but there’s no denying there’s a huge number of folks just getting into again (or in a lot of cases for the first time, which is especially cool imho).

Is it possible to put together a “chain of events” leading to the OSR? I hear a fairly common tale of gamers leaving the hobby in the early 90’s, suffering from a combination of apathy with an uninspired and increasingly complex 2E, and a need to focus more on finishing degrees, starting careers and families, etc. And then these “ex-gamers” remembering there’s something they missed when all the hoopla of a 3rd edition being announced arrives, and deciding to pick up the dice once more.

To find something…not quite what it used to be. Fortunately, 3rd party companies arrive that recognize that something special that’s missing, like Necromancer Games and Goodman Games, and they publish adventures designed with the old school gamer in mind. This doesn’t make the games truly old-school of course, but old-school enough that ex-gamers do infact become gamers again. They make room in their lives for the hobby once more, and a thriving 3rd party cottage industry gives many of them, myself included, the chance to do what they never so easily could do back in the militant TSR days: get their own stuff published!

But 3E, while an enjoyable pastime, was apparently still missing something. Why didn’t gamers flock back the old editions after a couple of years of this? Was the DIY ethic inherent in the hobby strong enough to keep them working at it, striving toward customizing the new edition into something more closely resembling the glorious old stuff? Well, yes, some folks out there did indeed do this. A couple of “halfway” games popped up, almost concurrently. TLG released “Castles & Crusades”, an unmistakably d20 game that lovingly crafted a thick coat of AD&D icing over the SRD while still staying strictly faithful to the terms of the OGL. BFRPG would also appear around this time, and take things yet a bit further. This nice little game, as opposed to C&C, was B/X with a thick coat of SRD on top of it, testing the OGL waters for just what was possible to get away with. This would be my first experience with what came to be called the “Retroclone”. Old-school-simple M20 appeared as well, completely based on d20, but with the old-school ethic of “less is more” better represented than in any variant so far.

Oh, and OSRIC popped up too! As the name states (Old School Reference..) this wasn’t even intended to be a game that you played, it was intended as a way for folks to release 1E AD&D-compatible adventures and supplements under the OGL. Nonetheless, people were downloading it and playing it. And printing it, and having it printed. And playing it. What exactly was going on here? I mean, people were talking about how much fun they were having playing “OSRIC”. There were folks bugging the admins at Dragonsfoot to open an OSRIC forum. But that’s the same thing as 1E AD&D, the mods responded, and the forum for that is still right here. But shouldn’t we have an OSRIC forum!?, the demands continued (and there is, now, a “Simulacrum Games” forum, btw). No, really, what exactly was going on?

Were 3E players actually leaving their game to move to OSRIC, a not-intended-for-actual-game-play clone of an out-of-print edition that was still easily available to anyone who bothered trying to get it?

Something was going on. Something was happening to 3E sales, though I can’t imagine the old-school movement had much to do with it. At any rate, WotC would trot out 4E D&D a couple of years earlier than anyone, including the developers, expected. Not what 3E fans wanted to hear at all. Or 3rd party publishers for that matter. But enough folks were interested in trying out 4E to push initial sales higher than those of 3E, by all reports. Some folks ran with the new edition. Some blanched at it, citing sacred cows and MMORPGs and anime and all that. Irreconcilable differences. Some, however, and these were the ones that caught my eye, were posting about how 4E reminded them of those old games, remember them, 1E and especially B/X? So much so, that hey, we should try and hunt down a copy of them. Or, we could just download one of these new retro-clones…

Last month I brought a LuLu-printed copy of Swords & Wizardry with me to a friend’s house, an ex-gamer who hadn’t played in decades. He looked at it, admiring Mullen’s cover art. “Wow,” he said, “this makes me feel…” he stopped, at a loss for words. “Like gaming again,” I offered? “Yeah, like I wanted to way back when”

Did Retro-clones just happen to come along at the right time, an unlikely conjunction of opportunity and availability? Is the OSR just a fad, destined to fade away as fast as it appeared? Or has it been slowly building in the background all along. Do Retro-clones offer just the right amount of “New and Shiny” along with the necessary amount of nostalgia? Did some failure in the design and marketing of the newer edtions of D&D contribute? Lots to ponder. And lots of good gaming to be had as we watch this whole renaissance thing continue to develop around us.


  1. Excellent post!
    To me there are a few elements involved: new and streamlined rules, simple gameplay, mostly free core rules to test-drive and a very friendly community. The sheer number of games with a small audience pretty much ensures that the competition is friendly.

  2. I agree, fantastic post.

    I think a large percentage of the rpg crowd believed the crafty corporate lie that old games were not only obsolete, but inherently flawed by the very fact that they are older games. New automatically equals better, improved, superior, fun. I also believe that people are slowly waking up, for whatever reason, to the fact that this is indeed a falsehood, with the result that they are discovering (or rediscovering) the fun of old school gaming.

    Perhaps too people have become sick and tired of the compulsion to buy, buy, buy. Modern rpg's seem to make you feel obliged to spend hundreds of dollars to purchase all that you need to truly play the game, another profit-led strategy. Maybe folks are beginning to find the idea of playing games that require you to buy only one single book, a pleasing and comfortable prospect.

  3. Fantastic post. Is there an echo in here.

    I'm completely geeked about going to... (North Texas RPG Con)

    The number of old school luminaries that are attending as a percentage of the small number of attendees is unbelievable. It should provide an opportunity for intimate discussion and gaming. I'm going to get all my stuff autographed by authors/editors. I started playing (O)D&D and then AD&D. I may get a chance to play B/X or BECMI.

  4. Also, I have to head my comment by saying this is a fantastic post. I think that the OSR has been building slowly all the way back to the point where Dragonsfoot was created. Bit by bit, people did this or that, and found an audience. Bit by bit, new people found their way to the community, usually starting by finding Dragonsfoot. It's all bit by bit, step by step. The retro-clones seem to mark the really big step forward because discussion of OSRIC got into the mainstream news as a big deal. I think that began pulling many more people to visit and think about the old school community. It took more than a year after OSRIC to see the sudden formation of many, many blogs. I don't have a theory about that one, although it seems to begin with Grognardia. Maybe James just put into the public eye a concept whose time had come. Anyway, blogging has suddenly and recently become a big deal in this next step of the OSR...

  5. It all makes me wonder if, in ten years or so, there'll be a 3e revival? It's not quite the same thing, as 3e has never gone away like the older editions, and likely will not, but these things tend to go in cycles.

  6. @Matt - while I doubt I'll ever have a solid answer to the "why now?" question, I do know that solid retro simulacri like your own are a big part of it. It certainly drives home the fact that it is more than possible to release new product with the old rules and design ethics and still appeal to, and sell to, gamers old and new.

  7. It has been a long time since I have felt this kind of energy about gaming the retro clones are really great . my players are mostly new and 4Th edition is overwhelming to them ( I just don't care for roll playing ) so we play Swords & Wizardry , Mutant Future and classic Traveller . the only " new " edition I like is Mongoose Traveller .



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